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U.S. team hopes for another big night

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Tim Howard remembers it as the night when he could do no wrong. For Landon Donovan, it was his 100th international cap and a spine-tingling occasion. For Michael Bradley, it was the chance to rub shoulders with the world's best in the Big Apple that made it special.

More than anything though, June 8, 2008, was the night when the current version of the United States national team came of age. Its exhibition clash with Argentina at Giants Stadium ended in a scoreless draw, yet the effects would be felt all the way through to last summer's World Cup.

As Argentina comes visiting again this week for another exhibition, this time just a long goal kick away in the gleaming arena of the New Meadowlands Stadium, American soccer can only hope for another night that carries as much significance as the one 33 months ago.

Back then, Argentina was ranked as the No. 1 team on the planet, with the sparkling talents of Lionel Messi supported by a cast of equally important stars and workhorses.

The USA, under Bob Bradley, was in confidence limbo after uneven play: they dominated some mid-strength opposition but were outclassed on the road against England and Spain. The need to produce a big performance, and a big result, was weighing heavily on the shoulders of coach Bradley and his team.

Over the course of 90 electrifying minutes, they got both. Argentina was slick and stylish and full of attacking menace, but the Americans repelled wave after wave and even had chances to win the game near the end.

"We stood toe to toe with the best team in the world and gave as good as we got," said Howard, who made a string of outstanding saves. "It was one of the best performances of my career – you can't expect to have days like that every week. But it was one of those things where it just comes together from an individual standpoint."

The most worrying part of a 2-0 defeat in England a month earlier had not been the outcome, but the timid manner in which the USA allowed themselves to be out-battled and outwitted. There would be no such problems here though, with fierce tackles flying in from the outset and not a shred of inferiority complex on display.

"We knew it was going to be a very difficult stretch for us, playing England in England and Spain in Spain, then coming home to face Argentina," said Donovan, who captained the team on that night. "It helped us with our confidence for sure and kept us moving along, knowing we could play and compete with those top teams.

"It was certainly memorable for me, it was my 100th cap and it was first time playing against Messi. The game was fast and exciting as you would expect. I thought we acquitted ourselves well and we had a chance to win it, too."

While the 2011 version of Bradley's squad is more developed and sure of itself there are still questions to be answered deeper into a new World Cup cycle. With many of Bradley's most trusted players advancing in years there is a need to bring through fresh talent and youngsters like defender Tim Ream and striker Juan Agudelo, who will be given chances to prove themselves. Opponents like Argentina and Spain, who the USA will take on at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on June 4, provide the sternest of tests.

Fans of the national team are no longer content with simply being a regional powerhouse, and while this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup may provide the opportunity to square off with bitter rival Mexico, it will say little about the side's overall standing in the world game.

Positive efforts against big name teams, though, can have a lingering impact on the psyche of the squad, just like it the Argentina game did in 2008.

"Experiences like the one we had against Argentina helped tremendously ahead of the Confederations Cup and the World Cup," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "Getting those opportunities early in the cycle were very helpful and great for our confidence."

Argentina did not live up to its own expectations during the World Cup, surging through the early stages on the personality of controversial coach Diego Maradona before being bounced out in the quarterfinal by Germany.

It is still one of the titans of world soccer though, a foe to be respected if not feared, and the kind of benchmark the USA needs to test its worth.

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